Before Val Lewton died of a broken heart (a figurative and then literal one), he produced a string of nine films for RKO Pictures from 1942 to 1946. None of them cost more than $150,000 to make. None ran longer than 75 minutes. All of them were saddled with lurid, focus group-tested titles like Isle of the Dead, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Ghost Ship. “They may think I’m going to do the usual chiller stuff which’ll make a quick profit, be laughed at, and be forgotten,” he told writer DeWitt Bodeen, “but I’m going to fool them…I’m going to do the kind of suspense movie I like.”1
The kind that I like too. Atmospheric2, stylish, literate—I might squeeze two of his films onto an all-time Top Ten list of horror favorites. So the news that Twisted Pictures (the people responsible for the Saw franchise) is in the process of re-making four of Lewton’s RKO classics—including my favorite, I Walked with a Zombie—makes me nauseated. I’m finally old enough to appreciate why critics bemoaned the oversexed Cat People remake in 1982. That film, at least, had a twenty-year-old Nastassja Kinski going for it. All we have to look forward to now is snuff porn. So, rather than look ahead, I thought I might take a look back—at Lewton’s meteoric career, and at a few scenes from his movies that still haunt me. The past is no vaccine for the future, to be sure, but in the here and now it can act as a topical salve.
In 1933, Lewton was hired by David O. Selznick, for whom he worked as a story editor, assistant editor, and second unit director on A Tale of Two Cities, A Star is Born, Gone with the Wind and, finally, Rebecca. When RKO Pictures decided to start a production unit for “horror programmers” in 1942, Lewton was recruited to head it. Within the constraints I mentioned above, RKO guaranteed him complete artistic freedom. And $250 a week.
His first move was to hire Jacques Tourneur, with whom he had shared second unit duties on A Tale of Two Cities. Tourneur would direct the first three of Lewton’s RKO films: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man—every one a critical and commercial success. Around this partnership (wherein the producer also wrote the final version of every screenplay), Lewton assembled a first-rate creative team that worked on virtually all of his subsequent pictures.
The studio separated the two men in 1943, deciding they could produce twice as many successful films apart as they could together. Tourneur would go on to direct the noir classic Out of the Past, the supernatural cult favorite Night of the Demon, and one of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone. Lewton continued his run at RKO for another two years (and six films), before suffering a series of crippling setbacks—professional, psychological3, and then physical. He died of a massive coronary in 1951, at the age of forty-six.
The immediate influence of the small body of work Lewton and Tourneur made together was enormous. Film noir pioneers of the mid-1940’s swallowed the RKO brand of atmospheric suspense practically unchewed. And not just aesthetically. True, Cat People’s photographic vocabulary would be imitated into clichés before the decade was out4. But I mean something more fundamental. The films are full of infidelities, love triangles, domestic cruelty, repression, frigidity, vanity, and more besides, all set on the razor’s edge between the supernatural and the merely neurasthenic (or, in the case of Cat People and The Leopard Man, the psychotic). Film noir wasn’t just interested in great-looking shadows, after all. It was hungry for all kinds of darkness5.
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I’m of the opinion that there are certain scenes all film lovers owe it to themselves to see at least once before they die. Some of these operate directly on the adrenal gland: the interrogation in Marathon Man, for instance. Others go to work on higher brain functions, like the funeral parade in I Am Cuba. Still others affect the whole head at once. Think Orson Welles: the opening shot from Touch of Evil, or The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors finale. To this last category I would add a short scene from Cat People. It is a chase sequence, first involving two women on foot along a lamp-lit, empty street, then one woman and…something else, perhaps. The total effect of its lighting, framing, editing, performances and – most importantly – sound design is remarkable. I actually shouted “Oh my God!” the first time I saw it.
The other two films also contain moments of terrible beauty. I Walked with a Zombie, which Lewton pegged accurately as “Jane Eyre in the West Indies,” has several. My favorite involves two women, both dressed in white, walking through a field of sugarcane in the dark, toward the distant drums of a voodoo ceremony. The effect of this scene can’t easily be conveyed with words; to be understood properly it has to be seen, heard, felt. But take it from me: by the end of it, the TV screen is so thoroughly charged with atmosphere one risks a lightning storm in the living room.
The signature scene of The Leopard Man is different. It has plenty of atmosphere, but is really powered by a series of jump-scares culminating in an orgasmic release of violence (off-screen, but heard). A New Mexican housewife sends her daughter into the desert at night to buy a bag of cornmeal. The girl is afraid. She has heard a leopard is loose nearby. Her mother doesn’t care, and locks the door behind her. Naturally, something bad happens. The way it happens—the editing, in particular—has been cribbed relentlessly by scary movies ever since (so often, in fact, the challenge may be to identify those that don’t quote the scene).
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In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m quite fond of these films. I recommend them unreservedly. Do they have flaws? Sure, but none tragic. And anyway, why should I affect an attitude of neutrality? I’m a film fan, not Switzerland. For first-time viewers, and those who have worn out their VHS copies, all nine RKO titles have recently been packaged as a DVD box set with a new documentary, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Now in fine—and merely adequate—video stores everywhere. Check it out.
1. Sources for background information on Lewton and Tourneur include their respective Wikipedia and IMDB pages, Mark A. Viera’s excellent essay “Darkness, Darkness: The Films of Val Lewton,” and Danny Peary’s indispensable Cult Movies.
2. According to Danny Peary: “Lewton’s films were made in direct opposition to horror classics of the past such as Nosferatu (1922), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), Dracula (1931), and King Kong (1933), which scared people with frightening images; he relied on basic universal fears—darkness, sudden movements and sounds—to send chills through his audience. He was convinced that viewers could be scared to a far greater degree by what they imagined in the darkness, or just off screen, than by anything filmmakers could show them. The surprising financial and critical success that the Lewton series obtained is proof positive that his theories on horror, suspense, and terror were correct.”
3. According to Mark A. Vieria: “In the late 1940s the studio system—assaulted by the Supreme Court, hostile senators, and television—was beginning to sag under its own weight. Lewton had trouble playing the game when he knew the rules. Now, ignored by an industry that was making new rules, he grew despondent. He sat in a silent office, sometimes sobbing behind its closed door. “The whole aspect of such waiting is just too corrosive,” Lewton wrote to his mother. “One even begins to doubt one’s own abilities.” [DeWitt] Bodeen said, “I never knew anybody who was so desperately unhappy, who lost all faith in himself.” If he had been able to hold out a bit longer, he might have benefited from the cataclysmic changes that were roiling the motion-picture industry, but he could not.”
4. Its DP was Nicholas Musuraca, whose cinematography was deeply influenced by German Expressionism (by way of Edward Hopper, perhaps—chiaroscuro plus strongly geometric urban naturalism). Some regard a 1940 film Musuraca lensed, Strangers on the Third Floor, as the first film noir. By Cat People in 1942, his style was fully mature. He shot five of Lewton’s nine RKO pictures: Cat People, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, and Bedlam. These films (and Out of the Past, on which he was reunited with Tourneur) had a definite influence on the lighting, framing, and camera set-ups of many B-grade noirs and (I would argue) Hitchcock’s Notorious, Ray’s They Live by Night, and even Welles’ The Stranger.
5. What’s more, the RKO films emphasize their female characters in a way that was almost unheard of at the time (remember, these films were made during WWII). While the men in them dither, drink, cower and conspire, the women act. Sometimes unkindly. Sometimes homicidally. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie didn’t give birth to the noir femme fatale, but I do think they helped nurse the idea along.